A month after launching his comeback from another potentially season-ending injury with the North Sydney Bears, Roy Asotasi is primed to play a pivotal role in restoring their old cross-harbour rival to its former glory.
Six years after his arrival at South Sydney coincided with the club's previous involvement in a NRL finals series, the 30-year-old former Kiwis captain is returning to unfamiliar territory when the Rabbitohs venture to Melbourne for Saturday's qualifying final against the Storm.
Come September, South Sydney's playing roster are usually focused on their end of season excursions while coaching staff who survive the review process ponder how to extend next year's campaign past round 26.
And Asotasi would typically be rehabilitating an injury that stymied any chance of adding to his 24 test caps.
At the business end of 2012 however, the front rower is healthy, mirroring the 20-time premiers' prognosis as long-suffering fans contemplate a realistic chance of witnessing the club's first title since 1971 on Grand Final day.
A torn pectoral muscle during the round-six clash with the Bulldogs condemned Asotasi to a support role as the Rabbitohs built towards a top-four finish for the first time since 1989 but after two reserve grade outings with the Bears he has gradually re-established himself in the starting line-up.
Asotasi's output has increased incrementally from 30 to 37 minutes per game over three appearances and he is anticipating a similar shift at AAMI Park.
Considering Asotasi has only completed one season since arriving from the Bulldogs any game time is a precious commodity for the 2004 premiership winner who was once regarded as the code's premier prop.
The chest injury suffered against his former club was his second in four years while Asotasi's medical misadventures also include an ACL tear in round 22, 2009 -- last season was only eight games old when he was sidelined for the remainder with a fractured wrist.
So there is no sense of understatement when Asotasi finished training yesterday and declared: "It's great to be involved.
"There's been mixed emotions because you're disappointed not to be part of it and you're also happy the team was doing so well.
"I've worked pretty hard over the last four or five months to try and get back into the side. And where we are now .... I couldn't be happier."
In earlier seasons Asotasi would tend to be pressed back into NRL service ASAP once passing a fitness test but with coach Michael Maguire having more front line resources at his disposal he could afford to regulate the Aucklander's return via the NSW Cup.
"I spoke to Madge (Maguire) and he felt I needed to go to North's to get some match fitness under my belt and I'm glad that's the way I was brought back," he said.
"Eighty minutes at the Bears is the equivalent to five minutes in first grade but it helped me get my rhythm."
Asotasi, who starts up front with English international Sam Burgess, was always confident of defying medical opinion and making it back on the field but he was more restrained when quizzed on the possible resurrection of his Kiwis career.
The New Zealand Rugby League named its initial train-on squad for next month's trans-Tasman test in Townsville yesterday and it will be expanded once top eight teams exit the title race.
Asotasi, who has not represented New Zealand since the disastrous 2007 All Golds tour to England and France, was the figurehead when a player revolt succeeded in toppling head coach Gary Kemble early the following year.
He was critical of Kemble and the conduct of NZRL officials accompanying the team but did not feel his stance had contributed to subsequent non-selection.
"I don't think so, I've got injuries to thank for that," he said.
"I've just had a bad run since 2008. Two or three weeks before the Anzac tests I've been injured and if you're out at the end of the season you're not in the frame for the Kiwis."
- © Fairfax NZ News
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